The advertisements above do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog, its authors, or host.

Pedantry of the Week

ped·ant·ry

[ped-n-tree]

noun, plural -ries.

1. the character, qualities, practices, etc., of a pedant,especially undue display of learning.
2. slavish attention to rules, details, etc.
3. an instance of being pedantic: the pedantries of modern criticism.
We receive a lot of feedback on our shows, which we love. It’s nearly impossible to produce an 80 minute show every week on scientific and technical topics without frequent errors. We have no staff of editors or researchers, and we all have day jobs. So we do everything we can to weed out errors prior to each show going live, but some still creep in. We therefore make corrections when necessary, on subsequent shows or at least in the forums and sometimes here at the Rogues Gallery.

Some corrections are really clarifications, or extensions of our discussions. Others correct simple factual errors. There is also a special category of corrections that we file under pedantry – a focus on small details, usually of word usage. Pedantic details can be fun, at time illuminating, and we freely engage in them ourselves. At the same time we do not want to get bogged down in pedantic details, or confuse sometimes arbitrary rules for genuine knowledge or understanding. 

Some listeners have accused me of being a linguistic relativist, which I feel is not fair. I am just not an absolutist. Rules, conventions, and definitions in language exist for a reason, to facilitate efficient and unambiguous communication. So I am all for getting language rules correct, for their own sake as well as to make language use as clear as possible. But there is a fuzzy line beyond which pedantry over details of language becomes counterproductive. Language is also a living thing, and rules were made to be bent, if not broken. Language evolves with use, and sometimes changes are a good thing. 

From time to time in the Rogues Gallery  (I will aspire to do it weekly, but that may be overly optimistic) I will discuss some listener pedantic feedback. I will take each case of pedantry on its own merits, sometimes agreeing completely, at other times likely taking issue with the points made. As often as possible I will try to turn the tables on the pedant by pointing out errors in their own feedback. I will start with two issues this week, because the first will be very quick.

The Moon

Listener Al writes:

Subject: asteroids within the moons orbit
Message: which moon?
This one’s easy. The name for the Earth’s lone natural satellite is “the Moon.” From Wikipedia:

The English proper name for Earth’s natural satellite is “the Moon”.[7][8] The noun moon derives from moone (around 1380), which developed from mone (1135), which derives from Old English mōna (dating from before 725), which, like all Germanic language cognates, ultimately stems from Proto-Germanic *mǣnōn.[9] The principal modern English adjective pertaining to the Moon is lunar, derived from the Latin Luna. Another less common adjective is selenic, derived from the Ancient Greek Selene (Σελήνη), from which the prefix “seleno-” (as in selenography) is derived.

Other sources agree – “the Moon” is the proper name and refers to Earth’s moon. 

Comprised Of

The next one comes from listener, Ray. 

 Hello, gang. I love your show and I try to avoid getting into pedantry, but Dr. Novella, I have to call you out on this. “X is comprised of Ys” is not correct. X consists of Ys, or is composed of Ys, or Ys comprise X. If you weren’t a pedant yourself, I’d let it slide. Anyway, thanks for your time. 

I have looked into this and every source I have found agrees with Ray. It is not proper to use the passive form of “comprised,” such as “the skeptical community is comprised of pedants.” From Common Errors in English Usage:

Although “comprise” is used primarily to mean “to include,” it is also often stretched to mean “is made up of”—a meaning that some critics object to. The most cautious route is to avoid using “of” after any form of “comprise” and substitute “is composed of” in sentences like this: “Jimmy’s paper on Marxism was composed entirely of sentences copied off the Marx Brothers Home Page.” There’s a lot of disagreement about the proper use of “comprise,” but most authorities agree that the whole comprises the parts: “Our pets comprise one dog, two cats, and a turtle.” The whole comes first, then “comprise” followed by the parts. But there’s so much confusion surrounding the usage of this word that it may be better to avoid it altogether.

 

There are different types of rules and conventions in language use. Some are necessary to avoid ambiguity, others are pure convention. As I stated, convention has its uses, but it is worth pointing out when a language convention does not reduce ambiguity or increase efficiency. So I agree that using the primary definition of “comprise” to mean “to include,” it does not make sense to say “comprised of.” However, as the above source states, an alternate definition of “comprise” could be “is made up of”, in which case “comprised of” does make sense. 

In any case, saying “is comprised of” is not confusing or ambiguous in any way. If you use this phrase every English speaker will know exactly what you mean. But if you wish to be classically proper, then it is best to avoid the phrase “comprised of.” Further, this is likely one of those cases that will change with use (as language does). The more the alternate meaning of “comprise” is used, the more accepted and proper it will become. 

In any case I find it best to know the proper rules, then you can use whatever form you wish as a choice, rather than out of ignorance. 

Keep the feedback coming, the more pedantic the better. 

Leave a Reply